Cinema Center is far more than a movie theater. It’s a community—a gathering place for people to explore art and humanity through film. And you don’t need to be a film expert or enthusiast to attend a screening. Cinema Center is for anyone who’s curious about movies and storytelling.
The Cinema Center was founded back in 1976 after the Spectator Theater (Fort Wayne’s last arthouse theater) closed its doors. After picking up the torch, this not-for-profit theater has been bringing a thoughtful curation of visual storytelling to Fort Wayne audiences for decades.
Being Fort Wayne’s only arthouse movie theater has come with challenges, but the Cinema Center has proven its resilience. It has survived COVID shutdowns and the rise of streaming services, both of which have decimated movie theaters on a national level.
Cinema Center isn’t just surviving, though. It’s thriving. Its annual film festival, Hobnobben, continues to grow every year. This year, they’re starting a new film club. And they continue to bring in experts and filmmakers from all over the industry for commentary and audience Q&A.
To learn more about the Cinema Center’s mission and what to expect from this year’s programming, I stopped by to talk with executive director, Art Herbig.
Meet Fort Wayne’s only arthouse theater — the Cinema Center!
Molly: For those who aren’t familiar with the Cinema Center, can you talk about your mission and what people can expect to experience when they visit?
Art: We’re part of the Arts Campus—just a little off the beaten path—and our particular art is film. Because of that, we show movies, but we like to say that the movie is the start of the conversation, not the end.
After a movie, we’ll often invite people to join us in our Spectator Lounge for a discussion, sometimes with subject matter experts. For instance, when we first showed Everything Everywhere All at Once, we invited someone who studied Asian representation in superhero films to join us for conversation.
Other times, we’ll bring in filmmakers. When we screened Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, we brought in the production designer, and we talked about animation, physical spaces, and tying it all together with live actors.
As an arthouse, I think we sometimes get pigeonholed; people think we don’t show certain stories. But really, there’s no movie or genre off limits. The whole purpose of showing a movie at Cinema Center is to figure out what kinds of conversations we can have with it. And these conversations are for everyone, whether you’re a filmmaker or just interested in learning more about films and storytelling.
Through these conversations, we have a chance to demystify the art of filmmaking. It’s also a chance to re-mystify it—to discover the magic of making movies.
Molly: As you mentioned, Cinema Center hosts special events that delve into the story or the techniques behind the films you screen, oftentimes featuring professionals to engage in discourse about the film. Can you talk about some of your favorite events from the past year?
Art: I’m particularly biased towards To Leslie because the editor on the film was a friend of mine, Chris McCaleb. So I was excited to reconnect with him and do a Q&A after the screening. I was super happy to see it nominated for an Oscar. Last time I checked, it made around $50,000 in box office, and now it’s Oscar-nominated. That’s really going to change the trajectory of that film, and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.
We also did an event with Fort Wayne Pride, and they hosted the Q&A. We got to have this wonderful conversation about queer identity in Fort Wayne. Another time, we showed a documentary in partnership with the Center for Nonviolence, and they came in and moderated a Q&A.
Our Friday night programming isn’t always a Q&A, but it’s always an opportunity to welcome other voices into the room. We’ve partnered with dance groups and poets. It’s oftentimes the best thing we can do to foster empathy; the more we can tweak the conversation to get audiences to see things from a different angle, the better. Sometimes that’s as simple as introducing an audience to a gaffer and discussing what they do on set. Other times, it’s a deeper conversation exploring why a film is meaningful.
These types of events allow conversations to really reverberate, and are the most impactful. And because of that, they’re the most important events to me.
Molly: What special events are you excited for in 2023?
Art: This month, we’re showing Friday, Paris is Burning, Kiki, and Kirikou and the Sorceress. It’s an opportunity to talk about Black History Month, Black filmmaking, and Black stories in ways that aren’t just focused on slavery and trauma. It’s a chance to talk about the joy, comedy, fun, and intersectionality that can come out of these stories. These kinds of conversations are often atypical, and that’s why we want to provide the space for them.
Coming up in March, we’re doing our annual Oscars party, and we’re going to be showing nominated films. We’ll have our own glambot—that camera that does a 360 view of attendees at the Oscars. So people can do their own glambot shots at the party.
A program we always look forward to is Hobnobben, our annual film festival. Every year, we receive more and more submissions. We’re already at 200 submissions for 2023, and we haven’t even met our early bird deadline. So our organizers are going to have the exciting and daunting task of screening all those movies. But that’s the event we really hang our hats on.
We’re also starting what’s basically a film club, but we’re calling it “Creator Space” as opposed to “film club,” because we didn’t want it to feel exclusive to filmmakers. We want anyone with a story on their mind to feel like they can come to the club. It’s an opportunity to examine the art form, the narratives, and the stories. We all have stories, and to engage with those stories is what we hope people get out of our Creator Space.
Molly: Cinema Center is a non-profit organization. You’re in the middle of a fundraising campaign for a new projector, which is vital to your operation. You also have memberships for cinephiles looking to get more involved. What are the different ways folks can support Cinema Center?
Art: Yes! You can always become a member online, but we actually prefer it if you come into the theater to sign up, because we love meeting and talking to our members. One of the most important things about the Cinema Center is that it’s not just a movie theater, it’s a community of people who gather around the art of film. So membership is really important. Those are our people.
When I first started, there were levels of membership based on how much a person gives. I found that sort of, uh, icky. It was all very transactional and typically rewarded the people who could give the most. A person who wants to give $1,000 has the capacity to give that much. They don’t need to have their membership “level” validate that.
So we changed our membership structure to focus on opportunities. For instance, we have a filmmaker membership, which gives those members automatic access to those Creator Space events I talked about. Those members will also have an opportunity to screen a film they’re working on in the Spectator Lounge once per year. And it’s all part of your membership: opportunities to create, collaborate, and get community feedback.
Another example: we have some memberships that allow you to give more feedback and suggestions on programming. That might be more valuable to certain members who aren’t creating films themselves, but care about the programming from a viewer’s perspective.
We really try to create memberships based on meaningful experiences. And we offer steep discounts for students and seniors, so people have more access to these experiences. We ultimately want to celebrate all our members as our people, our community. We want to hear from them and talk with them. We truly want their feedback on everything—programming, movies, concessions, all of it. We want our community to feel valued and heard.
Molly: What about your new projector campaign? How’s that coming along?
Art: We’re using this year’s Oscars party as a final push to get enough money for the new projector. We’re really hoping to be able to pay that off, so that we don’t have to pay out of our operating funds. We’re about halfway to our goal.
This campaign is a big priority for us right now. Our new projector is going to be way less maintenance than our current one. The truth of it is, though, our current projector is long past its lifespan, and they don’t make parts for it anymore. Our service company recommended we replace the whole thing as soon as we can, so we’re working to replace it now to avoid having to shut down when it breaks again.
Fortunately, the company who services our projector gave us a deal on a high-end projector. We’re thankful for them and their understanding that we’re a small organization with modest means. We’re also fortunate to have everyone on our board of directors, especially Kathy Bock, who designed the campaign. Everyone’s been really helpful.
We’re really looking forward to finishing the campaign and celebrating at the Oscars party.
Molly: Cinema Center is a part of the Arts Campus in Downtown Fort Wayne, which is a hub for creative exploration. In your words, why is it meaningful to explore the medium of film as an art form?
Art: The narrative form of film is an opportunity to engage with the world. Whether it’s a foreign language film or a local filmmaker, it’s all about what conversations can be sparked from that art. And rarely are you going to have a movie so devoid of meaning that it doesn’t spark a conversation—even if that conversation is about it being mostly devoid of meaning.
The fact is, for us, having these stories told on our screen is about the people around us. Why is it important to bring a film from across the world to Fort Wayne? Well, because most people in Fort Wayne aren’t going to travel the entire world. But they can build empathy for people around the world, through diverse stories and the conversations they inspire. Film is an opportunity. Comedies, documentaries, foreign, local—whatever the genre, they’re opportunities to engage with other people.
Think about how many times you’ve been with someone and didn’t know how to express yourself, so you reference a movie to try to explain what you’re feeling or experiencing. That story becomes a meaningful way of discussing the ideas and feelings we’re trying to understand together. Because pop culture holds that level of resonance in our lives, it’s really important to engage with it and try to understand it better. We want to be a space where that happens.
Molly: Last question—is there anything else you want folks to know about the Cinema Center?
Art: You know, one of the things I want to do is encourage community partners to see Cinema Center as a place where they can also make connections.
For instance, we hosted an event on the last day of the 100 Days of Bill Blass—which was an event series happening all over the city. Rather than showing a movie about Bill Blass fashion, we decided to show a film about the sustainability of the fashion industry and the impact it has on economies and people all around the world. Bill Blass was great, and had a profound impact on both Fort Wayne and the fashion industry. But we, as a world, have a complex relationship with our clothes, even if we aren’t always aware of it. So being the last day for this Bill Blass series, we wanted to serve as a jumping-off point to consider what we can do as a community and where we go from here.
We were also a lead-up for Fort Wayne Pride, and part of Amani’s Welcome Week. These are the types of events we want to partner with. We don’t just want to exist on our own island showing movies. We want to be an intersection in the community.
I think a big problem with non-profits is that they often do exist on an island, but they don’t have to. To sponsor a film at Cinema Center, an organization just has to cover the distributor fees, which is typically only about $300. That’s not a huge hit to an organization’s budget, and it allows us to collaborate to find ways to make deeper connections to different audiences.
It’s important for us to make community connections, and we want to continue to do so. It’s how we keep our conversations going even further.
For a unique, enriching movie experience, check out the Cinema Center!
Molly Conner is a Fort Wayne native and freelance writer. Having lived in Downtown Fort Wayne throughout her twenties, she loves watching her stomping grounds grow. With her love of storytelling and community in tow, she’s eager to tell Downtown Fort Wayne’s story piece-by-piece—exploring the people, spaces, and organizations that make it thrive.